What is it? The first part of a remake of classic '90s PlayStation RPG Final Fantasy 7.
Expect to pay: $70
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed on: AMD Ryzen 7 1700X, Gigabyte RTX 2080 Super, 32GB RAM
Link: Epic Games Store
Final Fantasy 7 Remake has arrived on PC months after its PlayStation release, at a price of $70. The hope was for a definitive version, but at launch, I can't say this is it. Which is disappointing, because in spite of Square Enix giving it the kind of PC port the publisher is infamous for—not as bad as Nier: Automata, but still underwhelming—Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade is excellent.
After the lacklustre, confused, and unfinished-feeling Final Fantasy 15, this new take on one of the most beloved games in the series feels like it truly has vision. It balances faithfully recreating the original 1997 game (1998 if you first played it on PC like I did, giving me a lasting appreciation for the MIDI soundtrack), while commenting on the source material in a way that makes it feel up-to-date. The combat system is now fully real-time, though in a way that finally manages to honour the classic RPG legacy of the series.
The biggest caveat is that, despite the title, FF7R only retells the opening of the original game—the portion set in the grimy, industrial city of Midgar, where the wealthy live in comfort on gigantic plates of metal, while the poor live in the shadows beneath next to piles of scrap and waste. While originally the Midgar section could take about 10 hours, here it's transformed into a 35-40 hour adventure that feels more complete in its own right. As everything reaches a dramatic climax, it makes sense to close the book there (until the inevitable sequel).
The broad sweep remains the same. An aloof and grumpy merc named Cloud joins a cell of ecoterrorists who target the planet-killing Mako Reactors used by the Shinra company to power the cyberpunk-fantasy city of Midgar. It's a serious story full of environmental mysticism and melodramatic twists, undercut by goofy elements like chocobos and the infamous quest where Cloud sneaks into a bad guy's lair by cross-dressing. (Recontextualized here as a dance-off rhythm game that basically has Cloud compete in Drag Race, which celebrates the stoic grump embracing his feminine side.)
The remake takes this original as a blueprint, and expands it with extra quests, added character depth and motivations, even whole new story arcs. Pulling in from the original's top-down view to a closer, third-person camera makes the extra detail feel natural. It really adds to the feeling that FF7R stands as a complete chapter.
The Midgar portion of the original game wasn't exactly open world, and neither is the remake. Only a handful of chapters push the brakes to let Cloud wander around a hub and take on sidequests. Others are more linear. After the destruction of a Mako Reactor early in the game, you'll walk among the panicking populace, and really feel connected to the people around you as they desperately search for loved ones amid the wreckage. In the original game, that section was only two screens long.
Another highlight is a brand new chunk of story that has you walking a quiet residential district for Shinra employees, a kind of company town. There, you get a sense of what life is like for those who are ignorant of the planet's plight.
While the mix of ironwork scrap yards and neon-lit streets is incredibly pretty throughout, dungeon-like areas are more mundane and static. The extra Intergrade episode, originally DLC for the PlayStation version, has levels that benefit from a little more interactivity. It's centred on Yuffie, a character who didn't appear until later in the original game. Flipping switches with ranged attacks and clambering up walls like the ninja she is results in much more interesting exploration than Cloud is ever faced with. Her combat style, a hectic mix of close-range and long-range fighting, is terrific fun too. Her chapter is only short, but it shows how the remake could evolve its way towards a more interesting second chapter.
Fight or flight
Besides your first trip to the hazy red light district of Wall Market, where doing favours for locals plays into the plot, FF7R is better off for sticking to an action-packed pace most of the time. Cloud's person-sized buster sword isn't for show, after all. Whenever you're not taking detours to open treasure boxes for potions (which if you're like me you'll probably avoid using until the final boss), you'll be whacking enemies with all sorts of oversized weapons in real time, Final Fantasy 15-style.
However, blocking and using standard attacks charges the Active Time Battle bar, chunks of which can be spent to take special actions. Time slows to a crawl when you do, mimicking the original game's turn-based combat as you select abilities from the menu like Cloud's heavy-hitting Focused Thrust or Barret's party-shielding Lifesaver, as well as magic spells. Even using items like potions costs a chunk of the bar.
While it's possible to hack your way through many fights, sooner or later you're going to need to actually figure out how to get the most out of your crew. You can switch between controlling them directly, or command them to use abilities when their ATB bar fills while sticking with your favorite.
Each party member has a unique attack. For Cloud, that's the 'Punisher Stance', where blocks become auto-parries at the cost of mobility and ranged defence. Barret's is a charged shot that can be fired between longer bursts from his gun-arm. Keep up pressure on enemies, or hit them with attacks they're weak to, and they'll stagger, overcharging your damage (all the way up to 200%).
Often you'll need to choose between going on the attack to stagger an enemy or taking the opportunity to heal. Harder fights like boss battles really lean into this dilemma, especially on Hard Mode where magic is much more limited and items are outright forbidden. Not unlocked until you've beaten the game once (and balanced for new game plus), it’s a great extra challenge that really shows how tactical the fighting system can be.
This might be the best combat system Final Fantasy has ever had. It takes the real-time approach of Final Fantasy 15, and mixes it with more strategic, classic-feeling elements. Fights are fast, but you have time to breathe if you need it. It's sort of like if Kingdom Hearts 3 didn't make me want to scream every 10 seconds.
Abilities can be expanded by finding new weapons and maxing out proficiency with them, allowing that weapon's unique ability to be applied to all of your armoury. Spend enough time with your iron blade, for instance, and its Triple Slash attack can be used with any weapon. Characters improve by improving their gear, every level-up giving an equal number of skill points to all your weapons. It's a great way of bucking RPG equipment power creep, as rather than weapons being usurped by powerful variants, they stay relevant with different uses. Finding spells more useful than melee? Equip one that buffs your magic attack.
Materia are where you can get really creative. These shiny orbs slot into your weapons, applying a variety of effects: elemental magic, parries, stat buffs, abilities, and powerful creature summons. As materia gain experience, they unlock permanent upgrades that apply even if you move them from one character to another (the classic 'fire' spell becoming the higher-damage 'fira', for example). Some materia even play together, granting your basic attacks an elemental effect when attached to a link slot next to elemental magic, or the same with resistances.
You can really play with some interesting builds to get the most out of your team, such as by combining Barrier magic with Steadfast Block to soak up massive damage and immediately turn it into ATB so you can spit attacks back out. You'll always have way more materia than your party can use, letting you be creative in how you respond to threats. Thanks to generous checkpointing allowing you to re-spec before retrying fights, you have space to experiment.
Cloud is constantly asking where his money is. I find myself asking where the PC-specific options are. Final Fantasy 15: Windows Edition was a surprisingly detailed port, filled with options to tweak and enhancements not possible on its original console hardware. Here, you only have the option to choose between high and low shadows and texture quality, which barely seems to do anything, and there's an fps cap that maxes out at 120. Stuttering has been reported on multiple hardware configs, and dynamic resolution scaling can't be disabled.
You'll struggle on mouse and keyboard, unless you get used to a default control system that sometimes expects you to juggle WASD, IJKL, arrow keys, and a mouse all at once. You can't select menu options with the mouse, though you can scroll with the mouse wheel (fun for selecting attacks, but hardly worth it for the hassle of not using a controller in combat clearly designed for one). Moving the map with WASD is clunky, and sections with bespoke controls like a motorbike sequence and darts minigame are significantly harder with a keyboard than a controller. Some keyboard prompts prominently feature PlayStation button graphics. Press escape all you want, the shortcut to bring up the menu is M. The map? That's N, of course.
Still, Final Fantasy 7 Remake feels great with a controller in hand. It ping-pongs between the mechanical mind massage of combat, and exploring an industrial fantasy world and gripping story. Newcomers get a rich world to delve into for the first time, while as an old fan, I found it impossible to resist the urge to discover what was added and what was changed. The extra dimensions to the narrative and visual design leave me—for the first time in a long time—excited about the future of mainline Final Fantasy, and the action game fan in me keeps me coming back for the combat, something I rarely feel in any RPG.